Coomaraswamy on Universal Symbolism and Art Historians

The core of this discussion revolves around the all-too-brief treatment in the Portada chapter (on page 225 in the published version), which runs:

"In my interpretation of the portada I will draw from the sacred science of universal symbolism as outlined in the work of René Guénon and others. It may seem unlikely that the designer of the portada intended all of the meanings I will discuss. However, in my reading of the portada, I will tune into the traditional symbolism it encodes, whether or not its designers consciously intended such a reading. Art historians are responsible for more than value appraisal as they apply their knowledge of stylistic variations and likely dates and locations for a piece's origin. In his essay entitled "The Rape of a Nagi," Coomaraswamy digresses into a fascinating manifesto on traditional symbolism and his transcendental approach to interpreting art.[2] According to such an approach, universal (or traditional) symbolism can usually be identified in religious architecture, and such symbolism carries with it a meaning that transcends the conscious knowledge of any artisan. For this reason we can say that the Virgin Mary, for example, wherever she appears, ultimately represents the Galactic Center."

The note [2] reference cites "Rape of the Nagi" essay (Coomaraswamy 1, Princeton 1977, ed. Lipsey), which is followed by a praising review-essay of Walter Andrae's book on symbolism. Those essays are essential for understanding Coomaraswamy's view of the true role of art and the art historian. In addition, his essays "On Symbolism" and "On Traditional Symbolism" were published in What is Civilization? and reveal deeper insights.